Vatican Rules out Deny Food and Fluids in Conference on Patients in a ‘Vegetative State’

VATICAN CITY, March 18, 2004 ( - A conference examining end-of-life care for individuals in a “vegetative state” has convened in Rome. The symposium, titled Life-Sustaining Treatments and the Vegetative State: Scientific Advances, Ethical Dilemmas, is a joint effort of the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC) and the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life. The meeting will gather 370 scientists from 49 countries, and will examine practical as well as moral and ethical issues surrounding the vegetative state.

At a press conference attended by Zenit news, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Council for Life, contested the belief “that when a person loses the use of reason, he or she ceases to be a person and then there is the possibility of interrupting feeding and hydration in order to facilitate his or her death. As long as there is life in the person, that person continues to exist in all of his or her dignity, with all of his or her soul,” the bishop said.

Bishop Sgreccia said that feeding and hydration is essential to vegetative patients—it is “a duty” that is both ethically and medically necessary, because at present, science cannot predict who will recover.  Gianluigi Gigli, president of FIAMC and director of the Department of Neurosciences of Santa Maria de la Misericordia Hospital of Udine, Italy, said that these patients should not be treated as terminal. He said that as many as 43 percent of vegetative patients are misdiagnosed, and, in some cases “have been cured after being unconscious for years.”  The Catholic Church teaches that neither doctors nor patients are bound to use “disproportionate means” to prolong life. But Dr. Gigli argues that, although “disproportionate means” must be defined on a case-by-case basis, “nutrition and hydration are not a form of treatment, and they are not disproportionate. This is care that is due to patients.”

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